Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VII No. 2 April 1998


The LFS Phase III Test in Hawaii

by William Rossiter, CSI President


The Low Frequency Sound Scientific Research Program (LFS) Phase III moved to a test site off the Kona coast of Hawaii in February. After completing Phases I and II off California with little public opposition, the arrival of the LFS here produced a clamor of public alarm. Tight on time, the LFS team was surprised and distracted by the opposition. Statements from the LFS and Navy spokespersons meant to quell the concerns just didn't work. In truth, some opponents wouldn't have listened to any arguments. Confusion about the facts had people comparing apples to oranges, diluted the opposition, and obscured what appeared to be significant problems. By the time Phase III ended on March 29th there had been at least four legal actions to stop the LFS. All were dismissed. Meanwhile a growing array of anecdotal comments suggesting impacts on whales, dolphins, people, and other marine life flowed in. Unusual behaviors and distributions were reported over a wide area. CSI's concerns increased as the tests went on. Our real dilemma was that CSI had supported the LFS because of its ultimate management goals, but only if certain mitigations were in place to ensure that no whales were harmed in the process. Now we're not at all sure that the actual mitigations could have prevented harm as "significant impact", and we will work to define why. For background details of the program and issue please see previous Whales Alive! articles back to October, 1996 (listed below).

LFS Phase III ended a few days early because there were few whales left to work with, and while some feel further actions were moot, CSI will remain committed to ensuring that we all know as much as possible about what happened to local cetaceans as a result of the LFS test. The scientists want to know so as to understand the relationship of human noise to whale behavior. The Navy wants to know for their Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFA) Environmental Impact Statement. CSI wants to know for these reasons too, but also to satisfy our deep concerns about marine life that may have been harmed, to insist that the results include all the available information and be publicly available, to ensure that the Navy implement sufficient mitigation procedures into LFA operations, and to help translate the LFS data into management and regulatory results that will constrain human impacts.

The LFS was designed to subject individual humpback and sperm whales to precise sounds with the best equipment available; to study the whales' reactions so that we can understand the impact of human noise in the oceans. The U.S. Navy funded the LFS by providing the Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFA) test vessel Cory Chouest on a schedule dictated by Naval operations and the protocols of the civilian scientific team led by Dr. Chris Clark of Cornell University and Dr. Peter Tyack of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. A demanding schedule had the three phases of the LFS proceeding at a grueling pace. Whether the LFS team could accomplish all of its goals became a core question in January. "Quicklook" reports had been promised shortly after each phase ended, to allow all concerned parties to keep abreast of the research and to allow confirmations that any impacts the LFS caused were not significant. We were unable to review the Phase I "Quicklook" report until after Phase III had started. It didn't answer our questions. "Quicklook II" for January's experiment is not yet available, and "Quicklook III" won't come until late May.

How did the LFS operate, and what were its limits? According to Dr. Clark the Phase III LFS team first tracked all visible cetaceans and ensured that there were no animals close enough to the playback vessel to be exposed to "a sound field of 160 dB re 1 µPa or greater" for at least an hour before transmitting. A singing humpback, the "focal animal", was monitored from an observation boat for three song cycles and then a "playback" sound was transmitted from the LFA array that was received by the whale initially at 125-135 dB, and did not exceed 155 dB. Phase III completed over 30 playbacks like this. There were mitigations in place to prevent "adverse impacts". To prevent any potential or detrimental impact to other animals the team relied on observers on the vessels and at one shore station. The weather provided extremely good visual conditions. There were four associated inter-island aerial surveys during the test period, but aerial surveys directly related to transmitting were considered impractical, in part because they would "detect only a small percentage of animals that are there". Clark said that the LFS was not trying to cause "dramatic disturbance responses such as leaving an area, separating a mother from its calf, etc." but was "attempting to find the level at which responses from offshore singers predictably occurred and then interpret those responses as to their biological significance." Further, that "there is no possible way that the levels of playback that we used could physically harm a humpback whale." In response to criticism that non-focal whales were receiving high levels of sound as well, because the transmissions radiated not just at the focal whale but in all directions, Dr. Clark said that received levels of 120-130 dB had never been shown to be detrimental to whales, and that their responses were "not biologically significant". Clark said he knew of one LFS playback terminated because a humpback appeared close by and another when spinner dolphins were riding bow waves. Another termination was because the sound levels would have been too high at the coast. There were others. He didn't mention that terminations or delays occurred when people intentionally swam in the water near the Cory Chouest in protest. Led by Ben White of the Animal Protection Institute these courageous swimmers called their activity "shark trolling".

In spite of promised "transparency" and updates the unexpected effort to keep the research on schedule and deal with legal challenges absorbed too much of the participants' time. Communications became a major problem, fueling rumors and concerns. Distracting exaggerations and misinformation diluted responses to the real issues. Navy spokesmen did little to alleviate the problem. CSI got in the middle, pushing questions directly at the lead scientists as previously agreed, and spreading their answers as far as we could. But no one, including CSI, was satisfied. What some saw as a disquieting and cavalier attitude towards public concerns, CSI took to be an overloaded group of scientists lacking in interest or skills for public relations. They were surprised at the clamor. The scientists believed that we would all accept that their expertise and concern would keep the whales from harm, but they never found a way to convince people of that. CSI believes that the LFS team did care about the impacts and didn't want to harm any cetaceans.

So why all the fuss? First, just what is "deleterious", "detrimental", or "significant impact"? Even with the best available science the LFS team had to begin with assumptions for their definitions of what impacts might be significant. And as this project was about using just enough sound to make endangered whales react on their critical breeding grounds, but not enough to hurt them, those assumptions should have been very conservative. The whales didn't need any assumptions; they just reacted to the LFS sounds. Recent research has demonstrated that the distribution of cetaceans was affected by ATOC transmissions. If they were bothered enough by the LFS to move away why assume that they would stop when the transmissions did? Did the cetaceans react to the LFS by moving away or behind lees, escaping to levels far below the minimum of 125 dB the LFS was concerned with?

Many people with years of experience reported that the distribution of cetaceans and other marine life during the LFS transmissions was unusual. There is no justification for blaming El Niño and "normal" seasonal movements instead of the LFS without proof, and the burden of proof falls on the LFS. There were also reports of unusual dolphin behavior from people used to swimming with them, and one case of a woman who experienced symptoms while in the water during transmissions. CSI will argue that the LFS team must consider every submitted report in their assessment of LFS impacts. The work load that assessment demands is certainly unbudgeted, as was much of the legal and public relations efforts during Phase III, but that is not a valid reason to ignore them.

Unless proven otherwise, a significant impact must be assumed with coincidental LFS transmissions and unusual changes in distribution or behavior, even far from the source. It's what the whales make of it that counts. An initial distribution survey would have been very useful but apparently the LFS team made none prior to the tests. The four aerial surveys were also not directly associated with transmissions for practical reasons. The associated observers included the Cory Chouest source vessel, the observation vessel, and one shore station. Will the LFS team consider reports from other observers, such as the independent team from Ocean Marine Institute? What other distribution data will the LFS team use for the whales comparatively far from the source, but still potentially reacting to it? The excellent database that must be available after decades of scientific research and whale watching in local waters will provide an excellent comparison to whatever data are collected.

One event with a young humpback breaching near the OMI observation station about March 9th demonstrated what some contend was a violation of the intent of the mitigation protocols; for several reasons the LFS transmission was not shut down because of the whale's behavior. This independent team was not instructed in the observer/mitigation protocols and didn't know how to call the Cory Chouest even if they had had a phone on-site. The later assumption was that the young humpback whale the OMI team watched but didn't report to the playback vessel was not likely to be responding to the LFS signal which, at 22 kilometers away, was received at a computed level near ambient, about 103 dB. There were many other possible reasons for the behavior, including close tiger sharks or separation from the mother. Is this a conservative enough assumption? There may be allegations of other violations. Why is it justified to assume that the LFS did not cause such behavior? Such denials enforce the opinions that some LFS scientists are acting defensively, possibly denying impacts because of the attendant responsibility.

Because this is a scientific experiment, not a political exercise, CSI expects that if whales were significantly impacted, even harmed, it should be demonstrated in the data and accounted for in the conclusions. We do not mean just the data from LFS participants, which in retrospect seems too small in scale and scope, but also from whale watch operators, mariners, and citizens who possess what must be accepted as extraordinary knowledge of "their" cetaceans. Indeed, it was this cetacean knowledge, intimacy and contact that made so many people oppose the LFS in Hawaii. It is the responsibility of the LFS team to assume these data useful until proven otherwise, discounting nothing without documented cause and transparency. Further, that responsibility includes an objective appraisal of the initial assumptions of what was "significant" versus this outsourced data that suggests impacts well below predicted thresholds. Anything less will minimize the true threshold of acoustical impact; every "user" from the Navy to merchant shipping will be happy to get away with less. We must learn enough from this one chance because there will be no more LFS projects. CSI will continue to urge that the LFS analysis objectively assess as much outsourced information as possible, and be transparent in the process. The Navy has also said that they would recognize independent interpretation and open review of LFS results, and would not take preliminary research results as an endorsement of the LFA program. The Navy seems committed to integrating research results into LFA operations, and CSI will work to reinforce that commitment as well.

The LFS is gone. The LFA may be here to stay. The next step is a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, due late in 1998. Whales Alive! readers will be urged to participate in this EIS process as it proceeds. The noise issue became broader when stranded whales in the Mediterranean were linked to what has been identified as an operational NATO sonar system operating at a higher frequency than the LFA, and powerful enough to do substantial harm. The complexities of uncovering a multinational system that might have already killed whales are baffling, but a coalition of concerned scientists is exchanging information that might make a difference. CSI is involved with this as well. No, it never ends.


Refer to the next article on the LFA: Update on the LFA and Other Ocean Noise, in Vol. VII No. 3, July 1998

Previous articles on the LFA:


Go to next article: Two More Dead Whales Associated with ATOC or: Table of Contents.

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